Imagine a world in which a college education was affordable. Now, take it a step further and imagine a world in which a college education was free. Though it might seem far-fetched, especially to the more than 37 million Americans who are currently in debt due to student loans, recent initiatives and innovative techniques by higher education institutions stand to change the face of college tuition.
The Old School
Traditionally, basic tuition cuts or freezes have been the method institutions would use to curb students’ financial burdens. From national online education provider University of Phoenix to more traditional state school systems like California State University — both announcing proposed tuition freezes — to private schools cutting tuition price tags, these practices aren’t new. However, lowering tuition costs means less financial aid as well. For many schools, the strategy behind this method is that the publicity will help generate an increase in enrollment, which will offset the tuition cuts.
Innovators Changing the Playing Field
One social venture that is leading the way in tuition reform is University Now (UNow). Based in San Francisco, Calif., UNow was designed to provide students everywhere with an affordable college education through a network of schools. UNow is the parent company of two accredited schools, Patten University and New Charter University.
Students who are eligible can earn their degrees online from Patten or New Charter through UNow’s College Works Scholarship Program. Currently, the program is available to students who live or work in San Francisco, Oakland, or Sacramento and qualify for tuition assistance benefits with their respective employers. Through this program, students can essentially pursue a higher education for free.
The scholarship program was created to offer working adults an affordable option for earning a college degree — something that reports have shown to be quite handy post-Recession.
Here’s how the scholarship works: An eligible student will enroll in Patten or New Charter and pay applicable tuition costs out of pocket. The student’s employer will then reimburse him or her. However, the student will not be charged tuition at a cost higher than what the employer agrees to reimburse him or her, meaning UNow will cap tuition at the amount of the student’s respective tuition reimbursement program from his or her employer. The scholarship will then be applied to cover all remaining costs. There is no cost to the employer to participate in the scholarship program.
Working Together with Open Courseware
San Jose State University has jumped out as a leader in transforming tuition, recently partnering with open courseware provider Udacity to pilot a program called San Jose State Plus. This program allows students — both SJSU and non-SJSU — to take three courses for college credit at $150 per course. Students can choose to take the courses for free, but would earn no college credit.
The courses offered are intermediate algebra, college algebra, and elementary statistics and will be offered in a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) format. All coursework will be done online and exams will be proctored.
SJSU Plus is part of a bigger initiative led by SJSU president Mohammad Qayoumi, who has expressed that colleges and universities need to approach teaching and learning assessment using methods that are personalized, collaborative, engaging and relate to current real-world problems.
“The idea is to broaden access to college education,” Patricia Harris, media relations director for SJSU said. “In theory, we will build SJSU Plus over time. But that’s still far in the future. Right now, we’re focusing on assessing the three courses we’re offering.”
With the American Council on Education recently endorsing five more MOOCS for credit — all offered through Coursera — from influential schools like Duke University, The University of California, Irvine, and The University of Pennsylvania, the opportunity for an affordable education may be on the horizon. If more schools follow suit, students will be able to earn credit for mastery of courses that do not require paying tuition, which could be a complete game-changer in the future of tuition pricing.
Different Degree, Different Price?
The method of differential tuition — offering varying tuitions based on major, program, college or class standing — is another way to address the tuition issue. For example, schools may offer high-cost courses for majors in the field of engineering and health sciences, which tend to have more favorable job outcomes for graduates. Statistics show an increasing number of colleges and universities have begun offering differential tuition.
Ohio University is an institution seriously considering this method as an alternative way of charging tuition. In a November article of the Athens Messenger, Ohio University stated they believe a tuition-driven business model is unsustainable because “tuition by itself cannot generate sufficient money to cover the state share of the future cost of education” and “the ability of families to take on more education debt is constrained by the availability of loans, the labor market and earning power of graduates to pay off debt and the fact that disposable income of families is declining.”
Tips for Working With Your Financial Aid Office
Until all colleges and universities embrace the pioneering methods being used at schools like San Jose State University, there is still a need for financial aid. According to a report by the College Board, $236.7 billion in financial aid was distributed to undergraduate and graduate students in the form of grants from all sources, Federal Work-Study (FWS), federal loans, and federal tax credits and deductions in 2011-2012.
Students who use financial aid to supplement paying for their college education will invariably need to work with financial aid offices at some point in their college career.
Latisha Bonner has been in the financial aid business for 10 years, four of those which she spent working directly with Sallie Mae assisting students with loan repayment and working with colleges to help students fund their education. She currently serves as the default prevention coordinator for a public, four-year university. Bonner offered these tips for students when dealing with financial aid offices:
- Be honest with your financial aid officer about your level of knowledge of the financial aid process.
“Financial aid officers do not mind providing all of the information that you may need to complete the financial aid process. The more information you know in the beginning, the easier the process will be. If possible, try to meet with a financial aid officer in person so that you can receive pamphlets or brochures about the information that you are most concerned about. This allows you the ability to have something to follow-up with should you have more questions in the future.”
- The best time to discuss financial aid with a financial aid officer would be before the semester begins.
“If you are going to need financial aid for a fall semester, my suggestion would be to begin the process in early March or April. This would allow time to receive any additional grants that the school may have to offer because many of them are awarded on a first-come, first-serve basis. For students that are concerned with their financial aid for spring semesters, you would want to begin the communication with a financial aid officer around late September or early October. The earlier you begin the process, the less you have to worry about once school begins.”
- Make sure to have the correct paperwork with you.
“Once you have completed your FAFSA online, approximately 3-5 days later you will receive an email from FAFSA with your SAR (Student Aid Report). On the SAR you will be advised if you have been selected for the financial aid verification process. If you have been selected, make sure that when you meet with your financial aid officer you have a copy of your IRS Tax Transcript. If you are a dependent student, you will also need a copy of your parents’ IRS Tax Transcript. If possible, bring the verification worksheet the school may have sent to you. You may be able locate it on the school’s website. This will help in speeding up the financial aid process if you already know that you have been selected for the verification process.”
- Communication is key.
“You do not necessarily have to build a relationship with your financial aid officer, however; it is important to make sure that if you are contacted by your financial aid office that you respond. Many financial aid officers may deal with hundreds or even thousands of students each semester, so if they are making contact with you please understand that there is something that really needs to be addressed.”
- Let the financial aid office know if you fall into hard times.
“If a student begins to experience a financial hardship, he or she should contact the financial aid office to find out if there are ways to receive help. Many offices do provide students with special circumstances which will allow for additional aid. Also, if you are in need of additional funding to help with school-related expenses such as computers, you are eligible to receive a onetime increase of financial aid to cover that expense. You would need to contact your financial aid office to advise them of what you need and they will be more than happy to assist.”